For once the chairman’s vote of confidence in a manager actually worked.
Rod Petrie had made his backing clear for under-fire Pat
Fenlon and the Irishman’s quiet pep talk at half-time turned this match on its head.
Kilmarnock had taken a first-half lead through a stunning strike by birthday boy Barry Nicholson, 35 yesterday, but two goals from Liam Craig in the second half gave Hibs their first victory in a competitive match this season.
Fenlon could have screamed at his players at half-time, but he showed considerable nous in what he did – he told them just to keep doing what they were doing and make a little adjustment.
“I thought we did OK in the first half and there wasn’t a lot in the game,” said Fenlon. “One thing that concerned me in the first half was the use of the ball in the final third, and I said we needed to be a bit more precise with the weight of pass. I thought we passed the ball a little bit better in the second half. They put in a great shift and got three big points for us.”
An unusually small turnout in the away end showed exactly what the Hibs support thought of the season so far, and the missing fans will be kicking themselves. Similarly self-berating will be Kris Boyd,
suspended for a match where his presence might well have made a big difference.
The problem for Fenlon was that his luck appeared to have run out. The rub of the green has been mostly against Hibs recently, and there was an example of that after just six minutes when Owain Tudur Jones crossed to Rowan Vine who buried the ball behind Craig Samson, only for the assistant referee’s flag to
signal offside. It will be worth watching the television highlights to see if the decision was correct, but it was a least a very close call.
Tudur Jones and Vine combined again ten minutes later, but the Englishman just failed to connect with the Welshman’s cross.
The game looked to be heading for stalemate. Then up popped Nicholson with a goal that would make any birthday memorable. There seemed to be no danger to the visitors when Mark Stewart found him in space and he simply let fly from 30 yards out, the ball zipping into the top corner past the despairing clutch of Ben Williams. It was a magnificent strike, all the more wonderful because it was unexpected, and the veteran’s first goal for the club was quite the best thing in the match.
Both defences were in admirable form, with Darren Barr and Jackson Irvine in command for Kilmarnock while Michael Nelson and Paul Hanlon performed similarly for Hibs.
The visitors could not be faulted for effort, and both teams had their fair share of possession while both had efforts on goal, albeit half-chances. Sean Clohessy’s 34th minute cross deserved better from Paul Heffernan than a wild sclaff over the bar, while Samson had to look lively at the other end to foil Nicholson.
From dominating their opponents, Kilmarnock’s defence fell apart at the start of the second half. They just didn’t see Craig ghosting in at the back to meet Vine’s cross with a header that he guided deliberately low past Samson.
Vine had been on the end of some tough tackling but became the first player booked after 52 minutes for a foul on Clohessy.
Just before the hour mark, Rabiu Ibrahim surged to the side of the six-yard box but fired his shot wide, before Stewart’s low shot from distance was parried wide by Williams.
From the corner, the ball made its way to Barr, whose curling left-foot shot was just wide of the postage-stamp corner.
Tudur Jones responded for Hibs with a cracking drive that Samson turned aside, and the Welshman then took some serious punishment from Mark O’Hara, who was immediately handbagged by Danny Handling. Referee Kevin Clancy correctly booked both.
The next time that Clancy had to take out his yellow card was after Hibs had scored the winner on 80 minutes. A long speculative punt from Lewis Stevenson saw Barr and Craig in a chase and the Hibs man just got in front of the former Hearts player to fashion a lob shot that went over and round the advancing Samson. Craig danced over to the spectators, making the mistake of standing on the wall – yellow card territory, as Clancy saw it.
It was a goal that Fenlon was mightily relieved to see: “Football’s about results, unfortunately. When you’re not winning it’s horrible but when you’re winning it’s great.”
Kilmarnock managed to create just one chance in the final ten minutes, substitute William Gros firing just wide, before another substitute, Chris Johnston, got a rush of blood to the head in stoppage time when presented with the chance of an equaliser, his shot going well off target.
“We can’t afford to give away cheap goals,” said Kilmarnock manager Allan Johnston. “We created enough chances but we have to be more clinical.”